comics This year Houghton Mifflin added a comics volume to its prestigious Best American series. It’s kind of a big deal for the comic industry, the literary equivalent of being called up to the big leagues after years of toiling away on a farm team. The publisher picked indie comics legend Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) to guest edit, and he narrowed 100 entries selected by the publisher to the 30 reprinted in this volume.
Pekar’s touch is unmistakable here as most, if not all, of these stories spring from the indie/underground scene he helped to create. Many of these writers and artists deserve wider recognition. Justin Hall’s “La Rubia Loca” recounts a depressed woman’s Mexican bus trip that becomes both a harrowing adventure and life-affirming experience when another passenger becomes mentally unhinged. Rebecca Dart’s psychedelic “RabbitHead” uses alternative storytelling techniques to tell an epic tale of life and death in a mere 25 pages. And Seth Tobocman, Terisa Turner and Leigh Brownhill’s “Nakedness and Power” is the most moving and effective piece of political protest cartooning I’ve seen in a decade.
Most of the stories here do the form proud. But if the mission was to showcase the best of what comics can achieve, it fails miserably. The majority of the collection is spent on the kinds of navel-gazing, vaguely narcissistic autobiographical works that Pekar himself has made a career from. There are a few romance stories, some political cartoons, and a couple of humor pieces. But by my count at least a dozen focus on the creator rehashing his own life or recreating someone else’s in minute detail.
More troubling is the complete absence of anything from mainstream comics. Not a single story here comes from any of the major comic publishers or newspaper strips. That’s absurd. Pekar addresses this directly in his introduction, stating that mainstream comics “greatly ignore the medium’s potential” by not embracing the realism movement, and that while he looked at superhero stuff, he didn’t run across anything he thought was particularly good. That’s fine; the man is entitled to his opinion. But to dismiss all of mainstream comics because a massive chunk of its output is based around one subgenre is just as infuriatingly single-minded as he claims mainstream comics to be. In the past few years all of the major publishers have worked to diversify their lines to include more subgenres, like romance, horror, war and humor. Pekar himself should know that since DC Comics—the No. 2 comics publisher—is currently reprinting his own autobiographical work.
It’s especially ironic given that the Houghton Mifflin editor goes on (and on, and on…) in the introduction about how awful it is that the literary community has spent so long dismissing comics as a juvenile, second-class art form. When your own collection blatantly disregards a huge part of your own industry for those same reasons, you look like hypocrites at best, elitists at worst. While many of the stories in Best American Comics 2006 are excellent examples of a certain segment of comics, the collection itself doesn’t come close to representing the industry. And given how long comics have waited to get called up to the majors, that’s a pretty sad outcome.